"Our life is not our own" is a phrase repeated and emphasized upon on 'Cloud Atlas', one of the most epic films to hit theaters this year. Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) are remembered for directing two of the most visually striking films of the nineties. More than a decade later, they decided to work together to bring a novel widely regarded as unfilmable to the screen precisely, it seems, because of that particular line.
Cloud Atlas is built around six story-lines set in different times: In 1849 Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) makes an expedition to the Pacific Islands. In 1936 composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) works with an aging legend to compose a masterpiece. In 1973 reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) tries to uncover a controversy regarding a nuclear power plant. In 2012 book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) gets in trouble just when he is starting to become successful. In 2144 fugitive clone Sonmi-451 (Donna Bae) starts a revolution and in 2321 tribesman Zachary (Tom Hanks) tries to survive in an post-apocalyptical world. All these stories are connected and influence one another. You can now see where the titanic part of the task Tykwer and the Wachowskis set out for themselves comes from.
David Mitchell's original novel is structured in a very particular way, in which the first half of the stories is told chronologically, then the last story is told in its entirety and finally the back half of the other stories are told in reverse chronological order. For the movie adaptation, the Wachowskis and Tykwer (as well as editor Alexander Berner), decide to take a more complicated approach to the structure. It is not as clear as the novel, instead they cut back and forth the multiple stories. It is a very good idea, it gives a more cinematic flow to the movie and the juxtaposition of images and sound add enormously in expressing the themes that got the directors interested in this story in the first place.
One of the most publicized aspects of 'Cloud Atlas' is that actors play multiple roles. All the ones mentioned above, along with Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David and Hugh Grant, among others, appear playing supporting roles in all the other story-lines. The actors play different genders and races. This race-bending has spawned a few comments accusing the movie of being racist. I would argue the practice of changing actors into other races through makeup is only racist depending on its purpose. In the case of 'Cloud Atlas' the multiple roles is one of the most effective ways in which the themes of resurrection, karma and connection is explored and expressed in the movie. And a wonderful way of translated content from the novel to the film in an inherently visual way.
'Cloud Atlas' is a movie that outright expresses its themes. So despite its complicated plot structure, it is not a particularly difficult film to follow and to take something out from. Lines like that or "From womb to tomb, we are bound to one another" are repeated throughout. But none struck me as much as the one I quoted at the start of this review. You, like I, may not completely buy into the new age ideas of karma and rebirth, but the idea that our lives are not entirely our own is a very true one. In a way we don't decide who we are when we are born, we are given a race, a gender, a sexual orientation and a family we don't get to choose, but 'Cloud Atlas' says we still have a chance to change all of that. All throughout the stories, there is a strong theme of slavery and oppression as characters decide to take a stand to change their life and the life of those around them for the better.
For its huge scope and ambition, that Tykwer and the Wachowskis managed to pull off a satisfying screen version of this story, is worthy of praise. It is a film that people will enjoy when watching. It is not the deepest film of the year. Or the best. Like I said before, despite its scope and structure, it is very easy to follow. A little too much at times. Everything is expressed out loud and full frontal. Everything is, in many ways, simplified. Telling six stories at the same time makes them feel a little too simplistic and not that complicated. It seems like there is a complicated behind the movie, but its pretty simple. You see, 'Cloud Atlas' is interested in telling a good story and connecting with as many people as possible. In many ways it is a huge popcorn blockbuster. Even if not every story ends with a happy ending, it is the ultimate crowd pleaser.